Excerpt from The Madonnas of Leningrad by Debra Dean, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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The Madonnas of Leningrad

By Debra Dean

The Madonnas of Leningrad
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  • Hardcover: Mar 2006,
    240 pages.
    Paperback: Feb 2007,
    256 pages.

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This way, please. We are standing in the Spanish Skylight Hall.

The three skylight halls were designed to display the largest canvases in the collection. Look up. The huge vault and frieze are like a wedding cake, with molded and gilt arabesques. Light streams down on parquet floors the color of wheat, and the walls are painted a rich red in imitation of the original cloth covering. Each of the skylight halls is decorated with exquisite vases, standing candelabra, and tabletops made of semiprecious stones in the Russian mosaic technique.

Over here, to our left, is a table with a heavy white cloth. Three Spanish peasants are eating lunch. The fellow in the center is raising the decanter of wine and offering us a drink. Clearly, they are enjoying themselves. Their luncheon is light-a dish of sardines, a pomegranate, and a loaf of bread-but it is more than enough. A whole loaf of bread, and white bread at that, not the blockade bread that is mostly wood shavings.

The other residents of the museum are allotted only three small chunks of bread each day. Bread the size and color of pebbles. And sometimes frozen potatoes, potatoes dug from a garden at the edge of the city. Before the siege, Director Orbeli ordered great quantities of linseed oil to repaint the walls of the museum. We fry bits of potato in the linseed oil. Later, when the potatoes and oil are gone, we make a jelly out of the glue used to bind frames and eat that.

The man on the right, giving us a thumbs-up, is probably the artist. Diego Rodriguez de Silva y Velázquez. This is from his early Seville period, a type of painting called bodegones, "scenes in taverns."

It is as though she has been transported into a two-dimensional world, a book perhaps, and she exists only on this page. When the page turns, whatever was on the previous page disappears from her view.

Marina finds herself standing in front of the kitchen sink, holding a saucepan of water. But she has no idea why. Is she rinsing the pan? Or has she just finished filling it up? It is a puzzle. Sometimes it requires all her wits to piece together the world with the fragments she is given: an open can of Folgers, a carton of eggs on the counter, the faint scent of toast. Breakfast. Has she eaten? She cannot recall. Well, does she feel hungry or full? Hungry, she decides. And here is the miracle of five white eggs nested in a foam carton. She can almost taste the satiny yellow of the yolks on her tongue. Go ahead, she tells herself, eat. When her husband, Dmitri, comes into the kitchen carrying the dirty breakfast dishes, she is poaching more eggs. "What are you doing?" he asks.

She notes the dishes in his hands, the smear of dried yolk in a bowl, the evidence that she has eaten already, perhaps no more than ten minutes ago.

"I'm still hungry." In fact, her hunger has vanished, but she says it nonetheless.

Dmitri sets down the dishes and takes the pan from her hands, sets it down on the counter also. His dry lips graze the back of her neck, and then he steers her out of the kitchen.

"The wedding," he reminds her. "We need to get dressed. Elena called from the hotel and she's on her way."

"Elena is here?"

"She arrived late last night, remember?"

Marina has no recollection of seeing her daughter, and she feels certain she couldn't forget this.

"Where is she?"

"She spent the night at the airport. Her flight was delayed."

"Has she come for the wedding?"

"Yes."

There is a wedding this weekend, but she can't recall the couple who is marrying. Dmitri says she has met them, and it's not that she doubts him, but ...

"Now, who is getting married?" she asks.

The foregoing is excerpted from The Madonnas of Leningrad by Debra Dean. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced without written permission from HarperCollins Publishers, 10 East 53rd Street, New York, NY 10022

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